Kenneth Martin & Mary Martin: Constructed Works

By Garlake, Margaret | Art Monthly, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Kenneth Martin & Mary Martin: Constructed Works


Garlake, Margaret, Art Monthly


Kenneth Martin & Mary Martin: Constructed Works Camden Arts Centre London July 13 to September 16

The first illustration in the catalogue for 'Kenneth Martin & Mary Martin' is a photograph of Kenneth Martin's studio taken in 1953, showing what we tend to call his mobiles strung up in a line along a wall. This somewhat utilitarian storage system has been more elegantly adapted at Camden Arts Centre where ten 'Screw Mobiles' and related works extend down the centre of the big room. Another five hang closer to the walls, all announcing with considerable eclat another new way of looking at the artists' work. This is a particularly rewarding undertaking at a time when the connections of mid-20th-century constructive art, especially with architecture and the public realm, are being studied in depth and within a wider frame of reference that includes such contemporary artists as Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt. The uncrowded arrangement of the work emphasises Kenneth and Mary Martin's positions as individual practitioners with separate studios who made little collaborative work but shared aesthetic and theoretical roots. Hanging together, their works simultaneously underline and deny a strong perception of commonality.

Kenneth Martin's mobiles are spectacular and the works for which he is best known, though he also made numerous small, static pieces, among them the 'Transformables', 'Oscillations' and 'Chain Systems', though only one, a Linear Construction, is exhibited. The 15 mobiles on show are a virtuoso demonstration of the extraordinary variety that he achieved within a single format. While some are simple, elegant expositions of numerical or geometric systems, others, made earlier (9 Variations and the Rotary Rings) look more experimental, even clunky. The 'Lines in Space', which appear to be made of loops of bronze wire knotted together, are almost comic in their deceptive conceptual simplicity whereas the most elaborate 'Screw Mobiles' grow in accretions of spirals so densely multiplied as almost entirely to conceal the way that they are constructed.

All his works are grounded in demonstrable systems though their most interesting revelation is, perhaps paradoxically, of the voluptuous beauty of constructive art. It would be difficult to envisage a way of displaying it better than in the large gallery at Camden--and the restraint and imagination of this show are of course productive also of meaning. The walls are occupied sparsely but regularly by Mary Martin's reliefs and, separately, by Kenneth Martin's paintings. Gaps are left for two free-standing display cases and for the action of the shadows of some of the mobiles. In certain lighting conditions they can produce highly theatrical shadows, especially when they are turning; Martin's own photographs of his works transform them into dematerialised baroque fantasies, as remote as it is possible to imagine from conventional perceptions of constructive art as invariably austere and restrained. The shadows are grey rather than black and soft-focus, but they make the point that the mobiles act on and transform the space in which they hang, as was the artist's desire, though the paintings confirm that this is not an entirely predictable process. Generically known as the 'Chance and Order' paintings, they are subdivided into 'Chance, Order, Change', 'Metamorphosis' and 'Order and Change', all grounded in systems and executed in beguilingly clear colours. …

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